Tunisia’s Half-Collapsed Democratic Transition: Synchronizing Economic and Political Development

Having tasted democracy, Tunisians now want their political regime to deliver economically: The failure to do so explains why the county has been losing the legitimacy of democratic transition and why its democratization experience is now half-collapsed.

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A Tunisian man in his shop in Tunis. Photo: Chermiti Mohamed / Unsplash

Last year, many observers acknowledged the fragility of Tunisia’s democratic transition as President Kais Saied fired Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament. More recently, a presidential decree pushed the country to hold a referendum on a new constitution that would grant the presidency more political power; the measure passed. Now, questions have arisen as to whether these recent developments will lead to the total collapse of Tunisia’s transition to democracy, as has been the fate of these processes in the other Arab Spring countries of Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Within these three countries and Tunisia, uprisings were successful in deposing authoritarian governments, but only in Tunisia has some semblance of democracy survived.

It is still too early to say whether Tunisia’s democratic transition has completely collapsed, especially considering that the country is still ruled by a president who was popularly elected. Saied framed his ground-breaking moves as fighting corruption and challenging the ruling political establishment, and they also seem to enjoy sizable popular support. Yet, the democratic legitimacy rooted in a democratically elected parliament is still absent. In this way, it is evident that the county is undergoing visible democratic backsliding.

While many dynamics can explain the recent democratic setbacks in the country, a political economy perspective offers useful insight into the reasons for their occurrence. Namely, the discrepancy between the country’s political and economic development could be to blame. Over the last decade since the uprisings, the country has more or less been able to institutionalize its democratic transition, yet it has failed to replicate similar success for its economy. This is the point in which Tunisia’s strides towards advancing its democracy lacked legitimacy, ultimately exposing it to a breakdown.

Examples of Tunisia’s democratic successes are plentiful. First and foremost, the country succeeded in writing a constitution, even amidst the turmoil of the post-uprising period. In adopting the new constitution, an important role was played by preceding power-sharing agreements in which the presidency, prime ministry, and speaker of parliament were divvied up among the three main parties. Later on, the country was also able to successfully hold parliamentary, presidential, and municipal elections on more than one occasion. As an important indicator of democratic progress, in these elections opposition parties rose to power and the peaceful transfer of power was observed. The Truth and Dignity Commission was tasked with implementing transitional justice, and the county was set to establish a constitutional court in the name of filling out the political institutions of a new democratic era.

Tunisia’s post-uprising economic development, on the other hand, was less impressive. Sluggish economic growth, a rising cost of living or inflation, an increased public deficit, and massive youth unemployment and radicalization concerns were important problems that the new regime could not effectively address. Despite the substantive legitimacy and representation presented by the new political institutions, the country lacked the political stability required to deal with deeply rooted socio-economic problems. COVID-19 and the ensuing restrictions deepened the economic dilemmas at a time when the country was already failing to cope with these problems. Saied’s interventions into the country’s democratic transition took place at exactly this time. In July 2021, he sacked the prime minister and suspended parliament in reaction to violent nationwide protests against COVID-19 restrictions and the faltering economy. Leaders of most political parties opposed the decision, called it out as unconstitutional, and accused him of staging a coup.

Nonetheless, some protestors also welcomed the move. It received widespread popular support, including among security forces and the country’s largest trade union the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). One poll even suggests that 87% of the population backs Saied’s decision. The existence of such broad support gives Saied no incentive to reconsider and seek a consensus-oriented approach to solving the problems.

As political regimes that represent the general will of the people, democracies definitely enjoy popular legitimacy. However, despite its intrinsic value, democratic legitimacy isn’t derived solely from popular representation. Democracies are equally performative regimes, and a great deal of their legitimacy is also drawn from economic performance and their ability to effectively deliver to their people. When they fail to do so, they can suffer a crisis of legitimacy and a sort of democracy fatigue among the people can loom, as is the case with Tunisia. Despite being legitimate, Tunisia’s political system was ineffective. Indeed, more than 13 governments were short-lived in the post-uprising era, a clear indication of the ineffective execution of political power in a county beset with significant economic woes.

It is not uncommon for democracies, like other regimes, to experience crises from time to time. Yet, the critical point here is that this legitimacy crisis and the democracy fatigue are coinciding with the rising popularity of political actors and outsiders who are not necessarily committed to the democratic rules of the political system. They present themselves as an alternative. This brings us to the issue of agency, that is, the personality of Saied himself. Even before the July 2021 crisis, it was reported that there were tensions between President Saied and the political parties, or more specifically between the president and the prime minister – who was supported by the political parties. Saied simply exploited a fragile moment, grabbing power that the existing institutions had not granted him and then taking the opportunity to introduce one-sided political changes. He did not include the political parties in the decision-making process despite numerous calls to reopen parliament. This unilateral behavior definitely stands in stark contrast to the power-sharing practices and relative political inclusiveness that characterized Tunisia’s post-uprising process, bringing to mind past eras of one-man rule under Bourguiba and Bin Ali.

In July 2022, by presidential decree, Tunisia held a referendum on a new constitution despite it being boycotted by the political parties. Even though 94% voted in favor of the changes proposed by the referendum, turnout was only around 30%. The new constitution reshuffles political power between institutions and gives more political power to the presidency. In this way, the country has made a transition from semi-presidentialism to presidentialism, giving up checks and balances to Said’s power in the process. With that said, Saied’s new presidential system is still not free from the concerns over governmental effectiveness that plagued the former political institutions. Whether the new political system will be able to offer effective and speedy solutions to citizens’ socio-economic problems will likely determine the fate and legitimacy of Said’s unilateralism in the long-run. Years after its 2016 deal with the International Monetary Fund, the economic challenges facing the country have once again brought it to the brink of needing yet another bailout, which is usually unpopular due to the associated austerity policies.

The fate of democracy in Tunisia is being closely observed in the region and beyond as it is the  symbolic birthplace of the Arab Spring: The Tunisian experience has been instrumental in demonstrating the ability of the people in the region to institutionalize democracy, just as the Arab uprising once showed these same peoples’ strength to revolt against and topple authoritarian leaders, ending the age of political quiescence, authoritarian stability and invariability that were onceclosely associated with the region. In terms of institutionalizing democracy, Tunisia has so far held free and fair elections, observed the peaceful transfer of power on multiple occasions, introduced a new constitution, and executed transitional justice, all of which are important elements of a democratic transition. Nonetheless, this democratic standout in the region is now faltering. Having tasted democracy, Tunisians now want their political regime to deliver economically: The failure to do so explains why the county has been losing the legitimacy of democratic transition and why its democratization experience is now half-collapsed.

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